A day to commune with nature: Western Mass Herbal Symposium will be held May 11 in Montague


For the Recorder

Published: 04-22-2024 2:46 PM

This week’s feature is my 100th Home & Garden column for the Recorder, and I’m pleased to celebrate by sharing the plans of two local women who are organizing a remarkable event for anyone interested in learning about herbal remedies and natural approaches to healing.

It can be difficult, when facing health challenges, to choose optimal paths to healing. Western medicine offers miraculous solutions, but they can sometimes results in unfortunate side effects. On the other hand, some people feel overwhelmed by the prospect of trusting natural remedies. For those interested in exploring these topics, a May 11 event in Montague can help shed light.

The Western Mass Herbal Symposium is the brainchild of local herbalists Laura Torraco and Lynn Golan. The daylong event taking place at the Montague Retreat is open to the public, but requires pre-registration. The symposium will bring together people who wish to explore and honor “diverse relationships between humans and the plant world,” according to the organizers. Torraco lives in Wendell and operates Sage Green Herbals in Turners Falls, and Conway resident Golan is proprietor of The People’s Gold, making and distributing bioregional herbal remedies. (Golan was featured in this column on Feb. 13.)

The gathering will showcase an impressive cadre of teachers and specialists, and Golan said “there will be something for everyone, including children.” Golan credits Torraco for the original inspiration for the event.

Before the pandemic, Torraco wanted to organize a gathering of skilled herbalists and those who wish to learn, but the idea was shelved due to quarantining and isolation strategies. The inspiration reawakened when Torraco attended her first in-person herbal conference after things opened back up, at the International Herb Symposium held in June of last year at Wheaton College in Norton.

Wanting to find a shady place to relax between workshops, Torraco settled into a grove of yew trees. “As I sat beneath the yews, there arose in me a feeling of gratitude for spaces where people can share our love of the plant world. I felt a clear call of inspiration to create an event that celebrates the rich and diverse plant community in western Massachusetts.” Lynn Golan was at the same conference, and when the two women bumped into each other, Torraco shared with Golan her excitement about planning a similar event closer to home. “Lynn was so open and receptive,” said Torraco. “Right away it seemed like something we could do well together.”

Torraco and Golan are well connected within the herbalism world, and they’re a brilliant team. A glance at the Western Mass Herbal Symposium website Golan designed and regularly updates is a testament to their efficiency and moxie. As of this writing, the symposium promises to bring together more than 30 skilled herbalists teaching a wide range of classes.

“We’re planning a packed, educational, and connective day!” said Golan. Fortunately, the organizers are scheduling offerings so that, for example, if you miss one plant walk, you have a chance to catch a different one. The same goes for more advanced topics and workshops.

For people unfamiliar with herbalism and plants, there will be several opportunities to take guided tours of the area surrounding the Montague Retreat. Grace Krupkowski, founder of Trilogy Herbalism in Keene, New Hampshire, will lead a kids-oriented family plant walk centered on learning about common plants. An herbalist and ecologist from New York’s Hudson Valley, Hannah Schiller, will lead a plant walk titled “Intro to Basic Botany.” And for those interested in fungi, participants can join the “Family Plant and Fungi Walk” led by Bear Crevier, an educator, community leader, and military veteran who runs a Connecticut-based nonprofit called Ancient Healing Paths.

For those with advanced knowledge and experience, renowned local herbalist Bonnie Bloom will speak about “Creating Effective Herbal Protocols: Dosage, Formulation, Frequency, & Duration.” (Bloom, the founder of Blue Crow Botanicals, was featured in this column on April 13, 2021.)

For those wanting hands-on activities or general tips, the “Holistic Wildcrafted Skin, Hair, and Self-care” workshop could be just the thing. Led by Brooke Bridges, the owner and head herbalist and formulator of Brooke’s Botanicals, the interactive workshop will focus on “foraging and medicine making from the inside out,” according to the symposium’s website. Bridges, a former child actress from Los Angeles, is now an assistant manager at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, which is owned by Leah Penniman, who has Franklin County ties in that her mom, Adele Smith-Penniman lives in Wendell. Soul Fire Farm centers its work on people of color and uses organic and ancestral farming techniques to combat racism and injustice in the food system.

One hands-on workshop, “Let’s Make Herbal Honeys,” will be led by a plant lover who’s also a leather worker, block-printer, baker, and poet, and who goes by one name, Stillwater. For those interested in botanical dyeing, Emily Shapiro will share knowledge of dyeing cloth with botanical pigments, growing a dye garden, and foraging for dye plants. Shapiro’s workshop will enable participants to take part in a dyeing project; attendees are welcome to bring their own cloth. As with many of the symposium teachers, Shapiro is a multi-talented individual: she’s a farmer, herbalist, healer, and educator based in Providence, Rhode Island and Seekonk, Massachusetts, and who hails from a family of farmers, mystics, and herbalists in the Jewish and Buddhist traditions.

Attendees of the May 11 symposium will have many more options to choose from, including “Tree Medicine of the Northeast,” “Flower Essences,” and “Heart-Spirit Medicine for Turbulent Times.” Visiting the symposium website will allow prospective participants a deeper dive into the many choices.

Co-organizer Laura Torraco’s own story reveals much about the healing power not only of herbs and other plants, but also of community connections. “My relationship with herbalism has been profoundly healing,” said Torraco. “I originally came from an urban area where there was a lot of disconnection from nature. Then I moved to Athol when I was 13, and discovered Seeds of Solidarity.” The Seeds of Solidarity Education Center in Orange remains in full swing, founded and operated by local heroes Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc; their motto is “Grow food everywhere.” Habib and Baruc are also instrumental in the annual North Quabbin Garlic & Art Festival.

“My early experiences at Seeds of Solidarity changed my life,” said Torraco, now 36. “That’s where I had my first truly fresh, homegrown tomato. And even more, (Seeds of Solidarity) helped me find tools and modeling to know how to have good relationships with myself, others, and plants. For me, plants were a gateway to learning how to have healthy relationships. Those introductions were blessings.”

“We’re pleased that the May 11 classes will appeal to all skill levels,” said Golan, “or even just people who are curious.” During a day that runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., people are bound to get hungry, but the organizers have thought of that, too. “We’ll have a food truck featuring Filipino food, from Ginger Love Cafe. They’ll be there all day, serving lunch, dinner, snacks, and beverages, with options for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans.”

The entire day sounds delicious, and since slots are limited, interested folks would do well to register soon. Children under 5 can attend at no cost, and kids ages 6 to 14 can attend at a steeply discounted rate; adults can purchase kids’ tickets at the door. There will be marketplace vendors, and an evening dance party to cap the day. Ten percent of all proceeds from the symposium will be donated to organizations led by Indigenous people. “That’s just one more way we want to honor our connections to the land,” said Golan.

For more information: westernmassherbalsymposium.com.

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope,” and a gardener, musician, artist and mom. To contact: eveline@amandlachorus.org.